During our short time in New Orleans, we discovered three persistent fascinating themes.
The third theme is the scar that is Hurricane Katrina.
To the casual visitor in the French Quarter and Garden District, the fact of the calamitous flooding, death and destruction just 15 years ago doesn’t seem apparent. We drove along boulevards lined with intact businesses, homes and restaurants. The evidence is there, hiding in plain sight.
When we were on the walking tour of the Tremé neighborhood, we stopped in Armstrong Park. Our guide was a retired architect, so she showed us images of a 1960s master plan for a new Civic Center. At that time, the City razed a substantial portion of the Tremé district in anticipation of the development.
After a decade of debate, and no progress, the City created what is today Armstrong Park. Sadly, the park has never been successful: all the picturesque structures provide too many places where people can hide.
Katrina’s flooding wrecked the park. The City rebuilt the park as it was, danger spots and all. Katrina came and went, and in the traumatic aftermath, people sought emotional security through recreation of what had been destroyed, and through erasure of painful damage.
After the park, we walked along an attractive street, over arched by oak trees. The current owners of many of the Creole Cottages and other houses along the streets had painted the intricate woodwork with lively colors. An open green field between two of the houses allowed a view of the spire of Saint Augustine Catholic Church in the next block. Our guide told us that the empty field used to be two Creole Cottages. They had been irreparably damaged by Katrina’s flooding, and removed. The absences, when you know how to see them, tell stories of Katrina.
One evening, we chose Uber to take us to the Uptown neighborhood for dinner. As we had come to expect, our driver was affable and talkative. For a little while, the conversation was the usual: yes, we are visiting for the first time; we are amazed about what we are discovering in New Orleans. He said that he was a retired New Orleans policeman, after 28 years of service, and a native to the city. He wanted to know what we had seen so far.
And then, he brought up the subject of Katrina. As we rode along evening streets lined with nicely lit restaurants, shops and houses, he proceeded to tell his personal story of Katrina and recovery from it.
He was unabashed to say that Katrina was the worst experience of his life.
On the night of the hurricane, he and some of his colleagues were dispatched to a designated safe facility, which was a multi-story school building. The power failed as the storm blew through during the night. They woke in the morning to find two feet of water all around the school. They didn’t have a way to leave the school and move through the flood waters; they were isolated without a way to contact other police. They spent the day there, helpless and frustrated.
After the second night holed up in the school, they woke to find that the flood waters had risen to twenty feet. The levees had broken during that first morning; it took a day for the neighborhood, like many others, to fill with the water from Lake Ponchartrain and the canals. They didn’t have access to any of the police department’s boats because the boats had been secured to their moorings, so were now trapped at the bottom of the flood waters.
This police team waited in the school for three days before anyone reached them in boats.
We asked about his family and house. Fortunately, his family had evacuated before the storm hit. However, he learned many days after the storm that that they had lost their house and all their possessions.
During the days after the storm, amid the flooding, one of his duties was to check houses for occupants. He said that, before he was assigned this duty, the first wave of inspectors looking for people to rescue had moved quickly; they would break a window and call out to see if anyone responded. If they got no response, they marked the house as empty. But since they hadn’t gone in, they hadn’t found the dead occupants. It was one of his responsibilities to go into the houses and bring out the dead bodies.
At one point, cruise ships were made available for police and other emergency workers to have place to stay. He said it was like being in an asylum. He and the other residents may have been colleagues and workers with the same mission, but they were all in pain, and therefore weren’t in a condition to be able to support each other. They couldn’t get away from the pain and distress.
He was enormously thankful for all the people who came to New Orleans from elsewhere and jumped in to work on flooded houses: pulling out plaster and wood and moldy rotting possessions. The homeowners, who were mostly not there, didn’t even know people were at their homes helping.
It took four and a half years for the city to even start to come alive again. He commented a few times how hard it was to be in the city for months and months when it was deadly quiet, and at night completely dark.
He said he couldn’t for a long time talk about his experiences. But now, almost 15 years later, he obviously was able and interested to talk. It was he who had brought the subject up.
He said that he had thought that PTSD was just from war. Then he realized that he had it too. He and his colleagues did receive counseling. He couldn’t sleep, and when he did, there were nightmares. He said he was thankful that alcohol wasn’t a thing for him. However, he said that at the time he was a smoker; during the aftermath, he smoked obsessively.
We asked if he had thought about moving elsewhere now that he is retired. He emphatically responded, “No!” New Orleans is his home. He is proud of the people of the city who were ultimately able to come back from, to us, an incomprehensible disaster.
It seemed for him, looking out at the neighborhoods we were driving through – which to us looked normal, tidy, lively, lit up – he saw both the devastation that was once there – the darkness, silence, and early on, endless water – and the new reborn normalcy.
I was taken by his wanting to talk about it all. It felt real and honest. Perhaps he talks regularly about his experiences, but his recounting was fresh and engaging. We were asking questions and doing some active listening. He responded to us; he wasn’t just delivering a monologue.
We felt humbled and honored to witness his story.